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Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

How to Identify and Catch a Honeybee Swarm (with Video)

A man and his bees

What is Bee Swarming?

Beekeepers today try to control their hives and not let them swarm. Some may ask, "What is swarming?"

Very simply: Swarming occurs when a new colony of bees have been formed. Most often the old queen will leave with her worker bees and search out a new "home." There is never room enough in any house for two queen bees! So, one has to go.

Observation Hive

If there has been enough food stores over winter and then early on in spring, a new brood will hatch and the old hive becomes too small for all the bees.

When the bees are almost ready to leave the old hive, they will send out "scouts" to look for a new home before they all leave out. These scouts will lead the new swarm to their new home.

This can be a sign to watch for if you want to "catch" your swarm. Another sign they are wanting to leave may be bees hanging out on the front of the hive (this also happens when the weather is very hot).

When Do Bees Swarm?

You can look for swarms in early spring. We have them usually beginning in early May (we have had them to swarm as early as the last of April). We are located in western North Carolina. You can look for them to swarm on hot and muggy days. Most of ours start swarming anywhere from 11:00am to 3:00pm.

The bees will fill up on honey for their travels and can survive for up to 3 days on these stores. This means the swarm if it is to survive needs to find a place on their own or needs to be "caught" by the beekeeper. The bees are usually calm and pretty harmless when they are filled up on honey stores

How to Catch a Bee Swarm

To "catch" a swarm may not be easy in the beginning to someone who has not tried it before or seen someone else catch one.

When you realize the bees are coming out to swarm and not just "working" hard, you can try to "settle" them. Now, I know there will be beekeepers that will read this and say, "No, that is just an old wives' tale."

Well, I say, this is something we have always done and it works for us! When the air becomes thick with bees, you can get a metal pan and spoon and start banging on it — this helps to "settle" the swarm into one place instead of them leaving. If they leave your sight, it will be harder to follow them and try to collect them when they do settle somewhere else.

You can also have another empty hive set up somewhere near the old hive and sometimes they will put themselves in the hive. You can rub peach or apple leaves inside the empty hive to entice the scouts.

When the bees have all settled into a ball now, is a time to collect them into a hive box. Hopefully the swarm will have settled low enough to get the box under it where you can brush them into the box. Sometimes, if they settle on a limb, you will have to cut that off and then shake that over the hive box (make sure the top is removed and you can take a few frames out as well when you are brushing or shaking the bees). You can replace the lid when the bees start going in.

You can tell if the queen has gone in, the other bees will start "bowing" to her as they're going in. If you did not get the queen to go in, the other bees will not stay long. We have had them settle on vines on the ground, on fence posts, in berry bushes and brambles!

Bee Swarm in Wild Azalea

My husband, Alan, and I come from beekeeping families. So, we tend to stick to the "old-fashioned" ways. We don't medicate or use chemicals on our farm. We use herbs that the bees can get to and "work" and medicate themselves.

We also don't use artificial foundation in the frames. We let the bees make their own comb. We don't use an extractor — we use a "straining" method and the honey is not heated. We leave a full super of honey on each hive for winter and we don't feed sugar water.

honey taken out of hive

Unheated honey

Swarming is a natural process and we try to make our "beekeeping" as natural as possible!

Susan Tipton-Fox continues the farming and preserving practices that had been passed down to her by her family. She presents on-farm workshops in Yancey County, North Carolina, and growing her on-farm agritourism by promoting "workshop stays" on the farm (extending the farm experience). Find Susan on Facebook, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here. 

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